brain imagesA new £6.9 million study to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease has been launched.

Funded by the National Institute of Health Research and the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study hopes to dramatically improve the success rate of clinical trials for treatments in Alzheimer’s disease.

The research project has been designed to identify biomarkers, which can detect the occurrence of Alzheimer’s very early on in the progression of the disease – when a person may have no obvious symptoms.

Between 2002 and 2012, 99% of clinical trials into treatments for Alzheimer’s disease failed. A probable reason for the high failure rate is that treatments are being tested on those who already have irreparable damage to the brain. It is likely that treatments will be more effective in slowing or stopping further at onset of dementia at earlier stages of the disease. Also, by targeting people in the earlier stages, it should be possible to design better clinical trials for treatments that make a real difference and improve people’s lives.

The multisite team, led by the University of Oxford, will work with colleagues at 8 UK universities and the Alzheimer’s Society, with the project also receiving support from a coalition of biopharma companies. 

Together, the researchers will perform up to 50 tests on 250 volunteers from Dementias Platform UK cohorts, including new tests that have never been used before to detect dementia. The tests will include wearable devices that will give researchers detailed information on people’s movement and gait, and sophisticated retinal imaging that will look at subtle changes affecting a person’s central and peripheral vision.

These potential new biomarkers will be used alone and alongside tests such as brain imaging and assessment of memory and other cognitive functions. They will allow the researchers to recognise the early stages of the disease and those who may be suitable for trials of possible treatments.

An estimated 46.8 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2015, and with an ageing population in most developed countries, predictions suggest this number may double by 2050. Currently, there is no known cure for the disease, and few available treatments treat symptoms of the disease, rather than slow or stop its progression.

Professor Simon Lovestone, lead researcher and Professor of Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said: “We know that Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor. Previous studies have shown changes to the brain as early as 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise. If we can identify the biomarkers present in this very early stage, we have the chance of treating the disease earlier, which is vital if we are to prevent damage to people’s memory and thinking. We’re indebted to those volunteers taking part in the study whose time and effort will make a real difference to our ability to diagnosis and treat this disease.”

Dr Rob Buckle, director of science programmes at the MRC, said: “This is the first major clinical study based on Dementias Platform UK and the results could be game changing for dementia research. Our goal is to find treatments that can slow down or even stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Finding biomarkers for clinical trials is crucial for fast-tracking decisions as to whether a trial should stop or continue, and the faster we can find out which drugs work and which ones don’t, the faster we can benefit patients. An ability to deliver more cost-effective clinical trials would also encourage investment and increase the number of such studies in the future.”

Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Dementia can be a heart-breaking condition, but it is my mission as Health Secretary to make this country the best place in the world to get a dementia diagnosis and support, as well as being a global leader in the effort to find a cure.  This extra investment is a vital step forwards towards that goal.”

The partners involved in the study are: University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University College London, King's College London, West London Mental Health Trust/Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Manchester, University of Edinburgh, Cambridge Cognition, Imanova, Aridhia, Exprodo, Sage Bionetworks, TrialSpark, Optos, IXICO, Berry Consultants, AstraZeneca /MedImmune and the Alzheimer’s Society.